Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time NBA scoring leader, one of the individuals who helped make basketball as popular as it is today, deserves utmost respect for his storied career and the way he has used his influence to push for positive change on and off the court. Even greats can have bad opinions, though, and Abdul-Jabbar's recent comments on Dirk Nowitzki are indisputably that.
During a lengthy interview with Tyler Cowen through the Mercatus Center, Abdul-Jabbar gave a wide-ranging interview discussing segregation, Islam and eventually basketball. There's a transcript of the entire conversation here. Towards the end of the interview (1:15:00 in the video above), Abdul-Jabbar took questions from the audience which included this one.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Has there been an unstoppable move in the NBA since the skyhook? And I bring up Dirk's fadeaway.
ABDUL-JABBAR: You asked about Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk Nowitzki's shot is very hard to block, but I don't think that he was able to have a dominant career because he couldn't do other things. If he could have shot like that and rebounded and played defense and blocked shots, then he would have been all-around, and he would have gotten more credit. He was like a one-trick pony.
You want guys that can shoot like that on your team. I'm not saying that he lacked value, but he would have been considered at a higher level if he had done more on the court other than just shoot the ball.
Normally it's best to ignore things like this, but Abdul-Jabbar is one of five humans ever with more NBA points than Dirk Nowitzki. His argument that Dirk Nowitzki was basically a glorified Matt Bonner is the most common one used to discredit Nowitzki, and also perhaps the most flawed. And Abdul-Jabbar has been criticizing Dirk for a few years now -- saying in 2012 he would have been better if he went to college and, earlier this year, calling him a streaky volume shooter that was "no way" better than Larry Bird.
Let's deconstruct this, step by step.
You asked about Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk Nowitzki's shot is very hard to block, but I don't think that he was able to have a dominant career because he couldn't do other things.
I mean, I suppose a "dominant career" could really mean anything. If Abdul-Jabbar thinks you must be a top-10 player ever with multiple championships to be considered that then yes, he's right -- the Dirk falls a bit short. But under literally any other criteria, I'm struggling to see how the career of the NBA's sixth all-time scorer, 13-time NBA All-Star, 12-time All-NBA selection, NBA champion, and NBA MVP could be described as anything but "dominant."
If he could have shot like that and rebounded and played defense and blocked shots, then he would have been all-around, and he would have gotten more credit. He was like a one-trick pony.
This is absurd. There's no question Abdul-Jabbar was the more well-rounded player, playing at elite levels on both ends, but idea that Dirk Nowitzki was a "one-trick pony" is more nonsensical than calling Applebee's "a beloved establishment frequented by highbrow academics."
Dirk was never asked to crash the offensive glass, both by the Mavericks' philosophy and because it didn't make sense due to his play on the perimeter. But the scrawny German rookie that entered the league in 1998 became the No. 8 all-time defensive rebounder in NBA history. Dirk's rebounding percentage, 21.6 percent, is virtually identical to Abdul-Jabbar's 21.7 percent. Dirk was also highly, highly efficient, turning the ball over on only eight percent of his possessions -- an almost invisible skill because it involves not making bad plays, but a huge part of Dirk's dominant play.
Even Dirk's defense, though never elite, really never got credit for just being solid. Throughout the middle of his career, Dirk's defense was consistently average, particularly when paired when a defensive center who could save Dirk from the most taxing man-on-man assignments. To give just one example, during the 2010-11 championship season, the Mavericks' were six points better defensively with Nowitzki on the court, by far the biggest difference on the team. (Tyson Chandler's impact was only about three points.)
You want guys that can shoot like that on your team.
"Guys that can shoot like that" don't exist. There aren't any "guys who can shoot like that." At his size, Dirk Nowitzki was the best, most efficient, most versatile shooter in NBA history. Among every shooter in NBA history, regardless of size, the number of players you'd choose in front of him are single digits.
I'm not saying that he lacked value, but he would have been considered at a higher level if he had done more on the court other than just shoot the ball.
He did, Kareem, and if you didn't see that, you weren't looking hard enough.